Critics of the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the ban on affirmative action in admissions to the University of Michigan argue that it will hurt underrepresented minorities and result in a less diverse student body. The evidence from California says that argument is wrong.
The court’s decision in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, and an effort last month in California to reinstate the consideration of race in admissions to its public universities, has again brought the issue into the national spotlight. Advocates of affirmative action have emphasized the oft-repeated mantra that when racial preferences aren’t used in admissions, underrepresented minorities (Latinos and blacks in particular) have a tougher time getting into, enrolling in, and succeeding at competitive institutions of higher learning.
Data from California, where voters banned the consideration of race in public college admissions in 1996, tell a very different story. In short, the percentage of underrepresented minorities admitted to and enrolled at all University of California campuses has actually increased since affirmative action was outlawed in the late 1990s.
Despite that, the president and chancellors of the University of California argued as amici curiae in Schuette that banning racial preferences in admissions led to a less diverse student body -- and, therefore, such preferences ought to be permissible (and, in the case of California schools, reinstated).
Such claims not only ignore the data on admissions and enrollments at these campuses. They also raise the question of why institutions such as UC remain so fixated on restoring the use of racial preferences in admissions when the evidence suggests they aren’t needed to achieve the diversity they seek.
So what do the data tell us?
First, the share of admitted students to all University of California campuses who are underrepresented minorities has gone up, not down, since the end of affirmative action. The percentage of admitted students who self-identify as Latino or Chicano more than doubled, from 10.5 percent in 1997 to 22.2 percent in 2013. (The share of black students also increased, but by a much smaller amount.)
Second, the end of affirmative action has not dampened interest in UC among underrepresented minorities. In fact, they make up more of the overall applicant pool at UC today than in 1997. In 2013, almost one in three applicants to UC self-identified as Chicano or Latino -- more than double the percentage from 1997. While acceptance rates for Latinos have fallen more than for whites, that's not surprising, because the number of Latino applicants has increased much more than the number of white applicants.
Finally, the argument advanced by advocates of affirmative action -- that fewer underrepresented minorities choose to attend UC in part because it has eschewed racial preferences –- isn’t supported by the data either. The percentage of enrolled students on all UC campuses self-identifying as Latino or Chicano has more than doubled since the end of affirmative action, while the percentage of enrollees who are black has increased slightly. In fact, the growth in the percentage of Latino students since 1997 has roughly kept pace with the substantial growth in the proportion of high-school graduates who are Latino.
Much of this data is conspicuously absent from UC’s Supreme Court brief. The chancellors argue that affirmative action should be restored because underrepresented minorities remain so at the University’s “highly selective” campuses. They also warn that purported declines in campus diversity will adversely impact the student experience and academic performance of underrepresented minorities.
But even the evidence from the system’s most selective campus, the University of California at Berkeley, is mixed at best. It is true that the percentage of all admitted and enrolled students who are black has declined by about 50 percent since 1997. But the total share of admitted and enrolled students who are Latino or Chicano has increased over the same period.
The final argument advanced by the University of California -- that its campuses are less diverse today because affirmative action was banned -- also conflicts with reality. In fact, the percentage of underrepresented minorities on UC campuses has nearly doubled since 1997. Defenders of affirmative action may argue that there would be even more underrepresented minorities on UC campuses if affirmative action hadn’t been banned, but it's hard to defend your position based on a hypothetical.
Even if we accept that underrepresented minorities feel less comfortable on UC campuses and are performing more poorly in the classroom, the best solution isn't necessarily the reinstatement of affirmative action. It could just as easily be addressing the continued underfunding of the UC system, which leads to fewer student services and other resources for students seeking help. These things not only make California’s public colleges less attractive than their privately funded peers; they may also explain why some of the most competitive minority students are choosing other schools.
The debate over affirmative action is fraught with emotion and driven less by data than by instinct. This must be the case when advocates of affirmative action ignore a very inconvenient, but data-driven, conclusion: The end of racial preferences in admissions at the University of California hasn’t had the negative effects on diversity that they feared.
Corrects spelling of plaintiff's name in second, fourth paragraphs.
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Lanhee J Chen
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